IN TORONTO, the self-anointed capital of Planet Hockey, a city where trade rumors fly like snow-flakes, citizens were doing Rob Blake math:
Add 31 (age of Blake, the Los Angeles Kings' franchise defenseman who, by the combination of his years in the NHL and the fact that his contract is up at the end of this season, becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1)
+1,000,000 (roughly the difference in annual dollars between what the Kings appear willing to pay him and what Blake seems willing to accept)
+90 (time, in minutes, it takes to drive from the Blake family farm in Simcoe, Ont., to downtown Toronto)
+17 (difference in rank between the Kings' No. 2 power play this season and the Maple Leafs scuffling unit)
+33 (years since the Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup)
+121 (Blake's league-leading total of blocked shots this season).
To Torontonians the solution was obvious: 4 (the number Blake wears on his sweater).
Rumors swirled that Blake would become a Maple Leaf last week during the Kings' only trip this season to eastern Canada, but Blake refused to get sucked into the eddy of general managers' talk and media wishful thinking. He told reporters on Jan. 17 that he hoped to remain in Los Angeles, and that was that—except for the few steps he playfully took that day toward the Toronto locker room as his teammates filed past on the way to their own. The Kings left the Air Canada Centre later that night with their full complement of players, two hard-earned points after a sparkling 2-1 victory (in which Blake nearly scored on a rink-length rush) and their sense of humor. "Hey, Nelson," Los Angeles coach Andy Murray called to right wing Nelson Emerson, Blake's childhood friend, the next day as the Kings prepared to board a flight to North Carolina. "Make sure your buddy gets on the plane."
Blake and the Kings are involved in a game of contractual chicken. He's finishing a three-year, $15 million contract and wants to stay in Los Angeles. The Kings—who through Sunday were 22-17-7-1 and on the fringe of the playoff picture yet figure to lose $5 million this season—want to keep him. While neither the player nor the team will disclose figures, reports put the Kings' latest offer at $8 million a year and Blake's asking price at $9 million, less than the average of $9.2 million that market-setting St. Louis Blues defenseman Chris Pronger received in the three-year contract he signed in October.